Standards Opinion

Linking Budgets and Policies to the Common Core

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 03, 2014 6 min read
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Jeanine Robertson, assistant superintendent for educational services for the Charter Oak Unified School District. Photo: CTK

Kathleen Pickard, Kelly Chavez, Carol Gilkinson, and Brandi Campbell--the teachers I wrote about in my last post--work in the 5,300-student Charter Oak Unified School District, whose boundaries cover parts of Covina, Glendora, and some unincorporated territory about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The district welcomes the switch to the Common Core, especially because it ends the No Child Left Behind era, its tests, and its wildly unrealistic targets.

Charter Oak’s schools are relatively high scoring. The district as a whole scored 804 on the state’s now-suspended Academic Performance Index, just over the 800 target-level set by the state. But because it can’t get all the subgroups to the necessary proficiency, four of its five elementary schools--all with scores well over 800--are in federal Program Improvement status. As in many other districts, English Language Learners, and special education students lag behind significantly.

But more than test score realism, district leaders and the teachers I talked to hope that the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which it is pilot testing, will, at least, come closer to measuring the kinds of learning its teachers want to impart.

The switch also comes at a good time organizationally. The district has suffered financially, both from the recession and from severely declining enrollment, 24 percent in the last decade, largely a function of an aging population and slowing immigration into the region. Now, the state economy is healing, and for the first time in years, the district is not laying off teachers. The extra $1.1-million from the state’s one-time Common Core fund and the generally improving state budget allows substantial investments in education technology infrastructure and professional development.

Jeanine Robertson taught for 31 years before becoming a principal and then assistant superintendent for educational services. “This is a huge transition we are asking teachers to make, and we have to give them every support,” she said. Teachers are both the objects of change and its agents: the authorities mandating the Common Core aren’t in classrooms and can’t implement it themselves. That job falls to teachers.

More Running Room. Relative to other districts, teachers get a lot of curricular running room in Charter Oak. “Some districts pick a curriculum and require teachers to be on the same page each day; we’re a lot more flexible,” says Robertson. She credits superintendent Mike Hendricks for expanding what she calls “trust and collaboration” in Charter Oak. “It didn’t used to be this way,” she said.

Which is one reason that the district retains some of it star teachers. As Pickard, the third grade National Board Certified teacher, noted, “I don’t think I would stay in education if they told me what to do and when. I tried it when they first came out with Open Court. I went to the training and tried it. I went to my principal and said, ‘I can either teach this way or be effective. He said, do what is effective.’”

The cohesion found in the district--and to a larger extent in California--comes from the state’s longstanding connection to a set of standards. The Common Core has ancestors in the state dating back to the mid-1980s, and the idea that teachers are supposed to be able to translate standards into lessons that work with their students dates from the same time. As Pickard said of her teaching, “It’s not the textbook driven; its standards driven. It’s the very same concept as I used before. Then it was California State Standards driven; now it’s Common Core.”

But still there is the question about what, exactly, to teach. When asked about the lack of specific direction from Sacramento in implementing the Common Core, Robertson said, “That’s just what we want. We need to be free to figure this out ourselves, and we can.” As she handed me two sheets filled with dates and activities, she added, “Other districts have invested in highly detailed implementation plans. Ours is a lot more flexible.”

Charter Oak principals and district administrators decided to change the math curriculum first. They thought that switching from memorizing the right answer to understanding concepts would be hard. It has been.

The district’s strategy for helping teachers was to connect them with nationally respected experts. In math this was David Foster and the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative. Foster spent two professional development days with math teachers of all levels, and the district joined the Initiative, giving its teachers access to its materials, including formative assessments.

Consistent with the approach being taken by the SBAC assessments, the district’s secondary schools adopted integrated math, phasing it in one year at a time so that existing students in the historic algebra, geometry sequence can finish without having to switch approaches. The high school adopted the Carnegie math program and the elementary schools voted unanimously to use the Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt “Go Math” curriculum and its associated technologies.

Teacher Voice. Teacher voice and collaboration has led to different curriculum adoptions at each level in the district. The middle school picked the CPM math curriculum, which Campbell and Chavez piloted.

Still, teachers act like vocal free agents. Gilkinson advocates getting rid of textbooks: altogether, too expensive, and not flexible enough, she says. The district is not ready to leave a district-wide curriculum. But Gilkinson adds, “No matter how hard they try to make us the same, over the 40 years I’ve been here, we are all a bunch of little kingdoms.”

Ironically, Robertson said, “the older teachers are more comfortable with the switch than the younger ones.” “I’ve got a closet full of math manipulatives and inquiry learning tools that I haven’t been able to use in the NCLB era,” Pickard reported. “It’s like going back to the ‘90s or even the ‘70s.”

“I’m glad that the state has suspended the old tests,” Robertson said. “We need the break.” The teachers thought so too, although they had cautions. They fretted about differences between instruction of teachers at the same grade level and that not all the teachers were as invested in inventing a Common Core curriculum as they were.

Although its teachers have been individually inventive and entrepreneurial in bringing technology into their daily instruction, the district has made a major commitment to instructional technology. In 2012, voters approved a $48-million bond measure to finance projects, including installing interactive whiteboards in classrooms throughout the district along with projectors, new teacher laptops, microphones, and software. All Charter Oak schools got wireless broadband in time for pilot testing of the SBAC tests, which took place this spring.

Charter Oak received $1.1-million from the state’s $1.25-billion appropriation to support transition to the Common Core. It’s spending that and about $1.6 million more making the transition. The biggest chunk of its state Common Core money, $500,000, is going toward a very traditional object: new core-aligned instructional material. The district is letting contracts for about $500,000 for computers and software to support new instruction. It is also spending about $175,000 on professional development, using both the state special allocation and federal funds.

Getting past NCLB and into the Common Core represents a step forward for Robertson: “The longer I have been in education, the more I have come to believe that the most important skill we can impart to our students is the ability to think critically.” She adds, “My personal goal is to help students grow into people of character who embody the 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.”

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